Decorating a school with ideas involves lots of contrasts. Just as the Data Walls inspired nasty competition, self-consciousness, and other negatives, in the High School e-portfolios inspire students, teachers, and mentors in jobs and the community to recognize real accomplishment. Portfolios will be the focus of an event on March 7, at the High School. And here are some highlights to make that show worth a visit.
First, portfolios represent students assessing themselves and choosing what they do best, and what shows those qualities in the best light. The most important feature of these portfolios – as the School Improvement Council hoped when they discussed the idea almost two years ago – is this kind of self-assessment, this kind of reflection and mindfulness: what do I want people to know I can do, and how can I show it best? That feature sets priorities while it also frames how young people see themselves in school, jobs, and college. These Somerville e-portfolios all use a set of standards – but, unlike the content standards of state and federal tests, the standards are human traits we all hope to show. Without conflicting with those tests, and, in some cases, even promoting scores from those tests, each student could say what was most important – to them and to those for whom they cared the most. Each student’s portfolio shows how they master “soft skills” like “responsibility,” “teamwork” and “creativity.” Those skills were originally derived by the US Department of Labor in the 1980′s and 1990′s and the subject of years of research, demonstration, and documentation, through what was then the SCANS Commission. That group, made up of unions, employers, and college representatives, identified skills critical to success in work, careers, and professions.
Somerville portfolios engage all those skills, and students find the best way to show their mastery of working together, of inquiry, negotiation, creating new solutions, and working across cultures, applying information, listening, and meeting personal and job responsibilities. Given how flexible media can be in highlighting these features, they show anything from fixing a car to dance, from poetry to music or compositions in sound, from creating games that illustrate a lesson to copies of awards and recognition. And these 12 students range from freshmen to seniors, spanning almost as many different cultures, and documenting networks of community events ranging from family history to metropolitan recitals. They weren’t chosen to be uniformly the best academics, but to explore new ways of showing their best capacities. In short, the portfolios reflect a variety of the “core knowledge” resources kids have to show off. Usually they will show themselves much better than they’d show on a test – since, among other things, they know how to “frame” that self in a way in which they can be proud of the picture.
This pattern of portraying the best you can do is both common sense and, rare in schools, based on thousands of studies of the most effective educational effects. Many of those studies – 52,637 in fact – went into the “meta-analysis” led by John Hattie, formerly head of educational research in North Carolina and now leader of educational reform in New Zealand. From that astoundingly elaborate study, he identified 33 or more than 150 effects (in two different but parallel studies). He showed quite clearly that the most important effects occur when “teachers see learning through the eyes of the students.” In his studies, the most serious change in students and the most critical activity is self-evaluation and feedback.
Next to self assessment as a critical and visible skill, is the choice students make in how best to show those skills: what do I think is good, better, and best, and how do I know it is. These judgments establish the relationship between the learner and the curriculum, the student, class, teacher, school and community. They usually show how things in-school affect or are affected by things out of school, and that is far, far more than any test can show. Most important pedagogically is that it helps kids frame elegant hypotheses: “If this works, does that mean x, y, or z? If they like this, does that they think I’m smart, cute, funny or powerful?” And testing those choices gives them tools to test and verify many more hypotheses in low risk settings, since everything can be revised and they can pick and choose among peers, teachers, parents and others whose advice they may want to use now or to use later in other settings – like college or work.
Next important is how they deliver that content: their media literacy and their vision of a compelling message. These choices go well beyond the content itself, since this is now a post-literate culture, where video, sound, picture and words all project different – and, ideally, complementary – messages. Making that choice shows their media priorities while illustrating how they can stretch what they know by also knowing how to show it. There is a whole department – at MIT – on media literacy, which studies these kinds of choices intensively. Among Somerville portfolios we see both the foundation for and application of that study. These portfolios treat media literacy from the inside, since young people now have more media options than any previous generation and they use more senses often more creatively than other generations.
Next most important is their target for who reads, listens to, or looks through that e-portfolio: most presume it’s a college or a boss, but some see their grandma in some foreign country, others an employer a decade or more away, and still others will still focus on teachers, peers, or a specific person of significance. When the School Council first conceived of these portfolios they imagined time capsules, through which students today might show their future children how they think and work now, a generation from now. Today’s students realize – intuitively, but with refinement that extends beyond that intuition – that some targets need different clues: some may need color, some shapes, some movement, some sound to make the message really work and to distinguish their product from that of others. Ironically enough, and to my genuine surprise, that doesn’t mean a kind of nasty comparison, but, rather, a kind of pride in shaping their message. I think of how one student, for example, chose not to adapt another’s style of showing sequential pictures, and was quietly happy with his own method, although it is more complicated. Where he might show a sequence of pictures and illustrate the progression of a design, his friend showed a series of icons above a picture, and expanded each picture when the pointer passed over the icon. The student with the sequence actually WANTS it to be more complicated – to draw the viewer in with a slow and long scroll of the picture sequence. His friend WANTS it to be simple to see how many different ways he could illustrate the same event. That choice is a serious piece of media literacy and it shows a kind of media sophistication that very few teachers and even media professionals recognize.
And there are many other priorities that go well beyond what the Council expected in suggesting this pilot. They were interested in converting the current paper portfolios to a more contemporary technology in a computer, but only a few realized the huge difference technology can make, and the remarkable sophistication of a generation for whom that technology is now native. Their vision was fine as it stands, and can always be defended as a more appropriate kind of “file” of portfolio materials than paper, but it opened a resource the Council didn’t consider. The question this raises – about technology and education – was already old when the innovators of the 1960′s and 1970′s talked about tech then. It was basically an update of John Dewey’s discovery that typewriters made people more literate than scrawls on paper, in the 1930′s, and when we put lots of typewriters into middle schools. But it gives the kids of today an advantage neither they nor we adults quite anticipated: they can say what, how, where, and when in snapshot, and they have always lived with that range of options – it’s a virtual additional native language.
This is a much, much bigger media breakthrough than a keyboard – since it is really all media. By positioning the learner at the center of that technology, it is a vastly more distinguished platform for their products, transforming curriculum, instruction, the role of teachers, content, objectivity, traditional standards, time vs. performance, and a host of other conventions. Ironically, it can flip those conventions without even making a ripple: teachers can continue to teach whatever it is they do, parents and TV and neighbors continue to talk – or not – but, with the kids with this kind of tool in their hands, the whole is much, much greater than the sum of those parts. The impact of that teaching will now show well beyond the classroom – with volunteer work, among teams, in and out of school, with adults and on jobs, and in a host of new settings, using new and unanticipated applications, to achieve goals their teachers might only hope to see. Most ironically, when teachers saw the first run-through of most portfolios, about a month ago, they were enchanted: they saw their students knew not only how to do what they did on tests, but to use that knowledge for themselves, for others, and for the future. It is one thing to teach literature or history or science, but it’s much more rewarding to see your students use that knowledge in new and exciting ways. That’s what the teachers said, and not what we – nor their students – expected.
When we first explored e-portfolios we thought departments or subjects might drive them – as they now drive paper portfolios. That vision corresponded to state and federal priorities for “core standards,” or specific content for each grade and each subject. As they turned out, Somerville portfolios say so much more, with little trivia and great relevance to both student skills and how those students see their future. When a student applies academic knowledge to a service program, for example; or what medium best shows creativity and focused inquiry, for another example; when a student knows, in a new job, that he or she needs to get more information to solve a problem for a customer and how to get that information from a supervisor or online, for a very typical example; or how different members of a team see their roles, their skills and their achievements are far more important than knowing how long was the seven years’ war or any of thousands of questions that could be answered by Google. The students know or can find out those answers, and use them in their presentations. That also shows in these portfolios, since the students actually worked with those same teachers – and even some employers – in creating the portfolios themselves.
Finally, it’s useful to contrast the e-portfolios as visible demonstrations of learning with the data walls that have become so controversial. Creating the portfolios, many students worked together – exploring how software can solve problems of expression, scanning and editing documents, and creating games or writing or graphics or video. Yet they also expressed their own unique talents in unique ways. They could collaborate and compete at the same time, building on each others’ ideas while expressing their own experiences better, clearer, and in sharper perspective. The seniors found the process helpful and used large portions of their portfolios for college applications, just as the sophomores and juniors found them excellent tools for blending part time jobs or service programs with school and college plans, and freshmen found that portfolios showed how different they’ve become since elementary school. They also competed as colleagues however, crossing cultures, grades, and languages, arts and sciences, technology and careers. Yet as friends, they asked for feedback from each other and from teachers and others, got it, used it, and gave it. They started as a random group of 12 students with little in common, and became associates, with a process and product of which they were proud. Several even started their own after-after school groups, helping friends create their own e-portfolios.
As one senior said, “If I’d been doing this from Freshman year, I’d have these colleges bidding for me.”
As one teacher, observing her student assembling sound and video asked, “How did you do that, and can you show me how to do mine?”
As an associate from SUNY Stony Brook said, “Somerville is a model program, and we’ll be adapting that model to college courses and students.”
And as a mentor from Arizona said, “Somerville has invented a new and more powerful way to assess students, teachers, and curriculum, in a simple, easy system kids enjoy.”
So, let ‘em build walls, we’ll just build bridges and gates. At a price about 10% of what Focus on Results charged for the Data Walls, we actually produced those results. And, for that matter, the cost was covered by the Ford Foundation and the project a partnership with no less than Harvard.